Who Owns the World? Co-operative Book Publishing

The state of platform cooperativism November 7-9, 2019 at the New School in NYC. Victoria Alexander, director at the Dactyl Foundation and editor of Dactyl Review, will speak on Saturday, Nov 9th about efforts to transform literary fiction publishing using a co-operative platform model.  2:45-4:15PM

The New School, The University Center, Room U304, 3rd Floor,  63 Fifth Avenue, NYC

Around the globe, we are starting to build an alternative economy that benefits the many, not just the few. Our passions, research, and projects challenge platform capitalism and chart a more democratic future. We show that an inclusive economy is not only necessary but already growing among us.

When starting a platform co-op, we have a much better chance at success if we rely on the support of our communities, established co-ops, incubators, co-op banks, unions, foundations, researchers, lawyers, technologists, and policymakers. “Who Owns the World?” is about building connections between these groups, finding the much-needed support, and learning from each other. For the first time, this event will bring together many of the most active players in this movement worldwide to share updates and insights, instigate initiatives, make new friends, lift each other up, plan next steps, and find new business partners as well as funders.

Celebrating 10 years of digital labor conferences at The New School, “Who Owns the World?” will feel the pulse of platform cooperativism, worldwide.

Panel, track 4
Wrestling Back Independence with Media Co-ops
The University Center, Room U304, 3rd Floor,  63 Fifth Avenue, NYC

The role of journalism in public life has been re-energized in the face of  “post-truth” debates. Discussions focus on the failures and malfunctions, but rarely on near-term alternatives that could democratize the media. What promise do platforms and cooperatives offer in a sector that is paradoxically more consolidated than ever before? Can media co-ops become the platform business model of the future for literary agents, authors, journalists, actors, and talent agents? Can this model wrestle back artistic independence and make producers less susceptible to the takeover of special interests?

Facilitated by Prof. Manoj Fenelon
Prof. Heather Chaplin (The New School)
Luc De Clair (Medor & Apache)
William Clark (WM Clark Associates)
Victoria Alexander (Dactyl Foundation)
Miles Hadfield (Thenews.coop)
Ela Kagel (Platform Co-ops Berlin)
Sabine Kock (Smart)

Transcript of talk by VNA:

I think of the online cooperative platform for publishers as a public square or marketplace—not owned or controlled by one group. The software for the kind of platform I imagine is probably too expensive for most groups to create, buy or lease, even as a community. Significant upfront costs would prevent groups from being able to start small and grow slowly. The Mellon Foundation helped create a browser-based book production software for academic publishing called editoria. It’s open source. It’s free. I’m an editor of a book series and journal currently with Springer, which provides nothing but peanuts for some editorial work, zero for authors or reviewers etc. Springer provides minimal browser-based proofreading that’s very glitchy. They store PDFs, provide a website to download them. The print versions are outrageously expensive. With support from their institutions and software like editoria, University Presses could move to Open Publishing and eliminate imperial giants Springer and Elsevier.

I am here to talk about how we can go further for commercial non-institutional publishing. I’m particularly concerned to support niches and genres that are not economically viable in the present system, but which are necessary for a healthy culture. I write literary fiction novels. That’s a hard sell. The traditional publisher used to provide the capital needed for upfront production costs and printing. Much of these costs have been eliminated by technology. And yet traditional publishers are notoriously bad about not really paying those who are doing the remaining work of writing, editing, reviewing, and marketing.

I’m going to talk about what I wish for from the platform cooperative movement: First the backend then the frontend.

1. Imagine a platform on which there were hundreds of publishers and independent authors, who share open-source, free, browser-based book production software. There is also credit/debit accounting to track the work that individuals do in proofreading, editing, design, reviewing, and PR work. Small publishers could access their own talent pool of authors for a lot of this work.

Handling the proofreading is the easiest part. I used to write for a Canadian citizen journalism publication called Digital Journal where you could proofread any piece and earn money for each correction that the author accepted. This crowd-sourcing approach works well for proofing. Editing and reviewing is more complex and would have to be negotiated via a contract. As an author I would only want help from other authors working in my genre, who are with my publisher or other literary fiction publishers. The platform would provide customizable contracts and enforce them automatically with the credit/debit accounting system. Let’s say I’ve done a lot of proofreading and editing in my niche and accumulated a lot of credit, I can use that credit when I’ve got a book being published. Since the publisher is not paying for these production costs, as author I will deserve a larger royalty.

I am currently editor of Dactyl Review, where literary fiction authors can review other literary fiction authors and in doing so nominate them for a $1,000 annual prize. Currently everyone reviews for karma. They hope someone will review their books. Authors tend to do a lot of work for free. Formalize that practice with a credit/debit system, and this will also save publishers production/marketing costs.

2.  Now the Frontend of the Platform. Ten years from now this is what I hope for.  Amazon has gotten out of the book business and Bezos is busy trying to establish a Blue Origin colony for himself and other technocrats on the moons of Jupiter. In this future, when someone wants to buy a book, a public open-source search engine, with no secret algorithm, either takes the reader directly to the publisher or to a public site like WorldCat, which is an existing catalog of every book ever published with links to nearest libraries and bookstores that have the book. In the future, I would like to see WorldCat link to the publisher’s website, which, I hope, might exist within Platform Cooperative site.

On the Platform publishers would sell books directly to the public and keep their profits. A small percentage of sales, maybe 1%, might go to maintaining the platform website. There will be marketing and reviews to help customers find what they want. The customers will subscribe to the kind of advertising they want. In this future, data collection is illegal.

On the Platform you can buy ebooks and audiobooks directly from the publisher and you can also find nearby brick and mortar bookstores where you can have a Chai Tea and order customized print-on-demand book (POD) or have it mailed it to you. We could do a lot more with POD than we currently do.

With POD and ebooks, far fewer paper books need to be pre-printed and warehoused. And cheap used or close-out books will be less common. It’s hard for a publisher to sell a book for the cover price once used books hit the market for pennies. In addition, in this wonderful future, every book will have a QR code on it so that when you buy a used book or check a book out of the library, you can tip the publisher/author.

So to summarize, I see the Publishing Cooperative Platform as a public square funded by non-profits, maintained as open-source software. I don’t see a need for top-down management of transactions, other than publishers selecting whom to publish, whom to allow in their little niche on the platform. Backend transactions of production work would be mostly self-managed through the individual contract and credit/debit system.
I see this type of platform as useful to musicians too and possibly other kinds of creatives. There would be different kinds of browser-based production tools but the credit/debit system could be similar. Online platforms, new technology and a credit/debit system eliminates much of the need for upfront capital investment. If we have non-profit support for development of software like editoria that also tracks credits and debits, we can eliminate the middleman control of the platform and stop the investors from sucking the life out of the creatives who are doing all the work.

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